“Politicians… you can always tell when they’re lying: their lips move.” – Max Headroom
This old joke captures the trust – or lack thereof – that we have in our governments. There are a lot of reasons for this, including secrecy, corruption, abuse of power, services that are hard to access or don’t meet your needs, and decisions that are made in ways you don’t understand and can’t be a part of. An open government changes all of this by enabling you to understand and be part of the decision-making processes, and come to rely on the consistency of your government’s processes and services.
Enabling you to understand how decision making works inside government starts with good documentation. If they don’t have it written down, they will have a very hard time sharing it with you. An open government makes information about how decision-making works available to you so you can understand the process, but they also give you the materials that decisions are based on, the meeting minutes from the discussions, and the details of how outside input influenced the final decision. This enables you to follow the process for specific decisions that you’re interested in – something that is much more interesting than reading a government process document. Having access to all of this information builds trust in your government first by removing the uncertainty about how the process works, and second by creating the opportunity for you to discover areas where they didn’t follow the proper process or relied on incorrect information for making the decision.
An open government doesn’t just wait until after the process has completed to share how they reached their decision. Your government also creates opportunities for you to influence decision-making and improve the way it operates. This may be as simple as accepting your comments or as complex as relying on you (and your fellow citizens) to make certain decisions or develop solutions to government problems. If you know that your voice has an impact on how your government works and the decisions it makes, you will begin to trust it more.
But arguably the most important way that an open government builds trust is by having integrity. Specifically, by following the rule of law and being consistent in its actions. When you believe that your elections are free and fair; that your elected officials, your government, and its employees will not abuse their power for personal gain or to the detriment of the country; and that you can rely on government services, including that the police will help you and that you can get a driver’s license or start a business; then you can begin to trust your government. When you also have the certainty that you can hold your government accountable for mistakes that it makes by raising them without fear of reprisal and knowing that the government will consistently follow its procedures to investigate and enforce any wrongdoing, then you can really trust your government because it moves from something abstract to something concrete. It will no longer be something separate from you that you are subject to but have no control over to something that you understand, can influence and rely on. This is how government should be.